Interview with our new advisory board member Prof Dr Melanie Schnell

Hello Prof. Dr. Melanie Schnell, thank you for taking the time to give us an interview. If one googles you, you quickly get a first impression of the topics you have already researched in your field and, above all, where you have travelled around the world. We are very impressed and find the subject of your research very exciting, even though we have to admit that we understand very little about it from a technical point of view.


At what point in your life did you first become interested in research, and in physics and chemistry in particular?

I became interested in research right at the beginning of my studies. I found and still find it fascinating to acquire basic knowledge and then work on developing it further.

I grew up in a village and very close to nature. My grandmother had a very large vegetable garden. From an early age I wondered why, for example, some plants grew from "onions", others from "beans" and still others from small seeds. With this early curiosity for such more biological connections, I discovered my interest in chemistry at school, until I ended up studying physical chemistry - ideal for me: Developing physical methods to understand chemical relationships. Again, my childhood came back to me, and still does. My father built many things at home - and we children were allowed and (sometimes) obliged to help. I was introduced to tools and manual work at an early age - an important basis for our laboratory work.

Could you briefly explain what your area of research represents and where your results can be used?

I'm not very good at summarising, so here's a more detailed short version.

We develop and use spectroscopic methods to analyse molecular compounds with high precision. Our research interest is at the molecular level - for example, we want to understand in detail how molecules interact with each other and how even the smallest changes to these molecules can lead to other interactions. Ultimately, it is these interactions that determine the function and therefore the efficacy of molecular compounds. For example, even relatively small molecules can change their preferred structure depending on whether they are in water or ethanol, i.e. alcohol, as a solvent. This needs to be understood.

A second focus of our research is the study of chiral molecules. These molecules exist in two forms, the enantiomers, which, like our two hands, are mirror images, i.e. they cannot be easily converted into each other. While these two enantiomers have identical physical properties, such as boiling and melting points, they can have very different biochemical properties. This can be seen, for example, in the different efficacy of chiral drugs such as ibuprofen: While one enantiomer of ibuprofen has the well-known analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect, the other enantiomer is initially largely ineffective and is eventually converted by an enzyme in the body into the active component - an interesting long-term effect. These differences in biochemical and medical efficacy need to be understood at the molecular level. We are also developing methods to identify and distinguish chiral molecular compounds.

Our third area of research takes us off the Earth and into space. We are characterising molecular compounds that may also play a role in the chemistry of interstellar space. This space between the stars is not empty, but filled with molecular clouds, which may continue to condense and become the beginning of a new star. The inventory of such molecular clouds is studied with telescopes. These telescopes can collect the molecular fingerprints that the molecular compounds emit after being excited by starlight. To be able to match these spectral fingerprints to specific molecular compounds, we study suitable molecular compounds in the laboratory and provide this information to the radio astronomers operating the telescopes for their analyses. In this way, you can gradually solve the big puzzle of which molecular compounds exist in the universe, how they were formed and how they might react further.


You have been a professor at Kiel University for several years and a senior scientist at DESY in the "Spectroscopy of Molecular Processes" research group. What are you currently researching in particular? What can we look forward to?

I have already mentioned some general examples of our research. For example, we are currently working on not only distinguishing the enantiomers of chiral molecules, but also separating them so that we can then carry out very controlled studies on them. Our method is particularly interesting for molecular systems whose enantiomers cannot be easily separated by other means. This is where we come in.


What made you decide to get involved with the Dr Barbara Mez-Starck Foundation? How did you find out about the foundation?

I have known about the Dr Barbara Mez-Starck Foundation for many years, mainly through the Mogadoc database, which we used during my PhD studies at the University of Hanover to quickly access spectroscopic information on certain molecular compounds. In my field of research, molecular spectroscopy, the Dr Barbara Mez-Starck Foundation is also known beyond national borders through the international Dr Barbara Mez-Starck Research Prize, and I felt very honoured when I was awarded this prize in 2021.


You have already won numerous prizes and awards for your research, including the Helene Lange Prize in 2013, which is awarded exclusively to young female scientists in the STEM subjects and honours their outstanding achievements. How do you see the gender imbalance in science?

First of all, it is a general concern of mine to get young people interested in science, for example through lectures, internships in the research group or visits by schoolchildren.
I also firmly believe that role models are very important in helping people to imagine and have confidence in certain career and development paths. I try to be very attentive to this, for example by making sure that there is a good balance of female and male scientists at the conferences we are planning. This increases the visibility of individuals, but also the visibility of women scientists in general. When I studied chemistry at the end of the 1990s, there was not a single female professor of the subject at my university. I didn't really notice this at first. It was only when I changed universities that I realised that it was motivating for me to work with female professors - role models. Diversity is important to keep everyone open to different views and ideas. Especially in times when some people in public positions promise supposedly simple solutions, this becomes more and more important.


Finally, the burning question: Are you also active on social media channels and if so, with what intention and on which platforms?

No, as a research group we are not active on social media channels. We have an active website and do a lot of outreach work, e.g. with schools as mentioned above, but no social media activities. 


Thank you very much for your time and we look forward to hearing more from you from the Dr Barbara Mez-Starck Foundation in the future.